It's strange how a team that has silenced their doubters time and again this season has to go home to do it yet again. At first, they were a floundering team with stars that weren't producing early in the season. With Mike Sullivan stepping aboard and losing three-straight games, the Penguins' offensive stars weren't doing enough to justify the salaries they were receiving for the responsibilities they were getting.
Instead, Mike Sullivan took a team that was woefully bad in the early part of the season, established himself as the man calling the shots behind the bench and in the dressing room, and guided this Penguins team to an improbable run that culminated with them finishing in second-place in the Atlantic, ousting their rivals from Manhattan, and then decidedly beating the Presidents Trophy winners in the Washington Capitals.
Yet this team still isn't good enough in some eyes. The stars were questioned after the Game One loss. There were injuries and a slow start that hampered Pittsburgh in Game Four. There were questions about goaltending in Game Five that saw the Penguins lose a lead and lose in overtime. There were additional questions about a goalie controversy after the Penguins dropped two-straight games. If you put it all together, there were major questions about the Penguins loading up on talent and missing the goal again.
We've seen this story before under former GM Ray Shero. The Penguins made a couple of big acquisitions to give them a push in the playoffs only to fall short of the Stanley Cup, sometimes in rather spectacular fashion. Jarome Iginla and Marian Hossa didn't bring a Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh, and there was a lot of chatter about how Phil Kessel's time in Pittsburgh was looking awfully disappointing.
Instead, GM Jim Rutherford retooled on the fly once more, adding Nick Bonino in the off-season in what was thought to be a cost-cutting measure after offering up Brandon Sutter in the Bonino deal. Rutherford looked at his slow-footed and often inept defencemen, and made deals to bring in Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, and promote some of the kids. In doing so, he added youth and speed to a blue line that was sorely in need of some, and vastly improved the back-end of the Penguins team.
Toss in a deal where the struggling David Perron was dealt for the speedy Carl Hagelin, a wise signing of the veteran Matt Cullen, some promotions in Connor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Bryan Rust, and this Penguins team is working together from top to bottom. Management and coaches are identifying needs, players are responding to coaching, and teammates are working together.
Yet there are still some who question the makeup of this team.
They made a guarantee like almost every athlete does to push this series to a Game Seven. They made promises to send this series back home to Pittsburgh. They looked to their stars who were making these promises and the stars responded with an effort. It's easy for reporters to sit back and make accusations about the leadership qualities of Sidney Crosby or the make-up of the team and how things aren't quite gelling as they should be, but the Penguins still have a shot at the Stanley Cup.
I'm not going to make a prediction one way or the other. I will say that Sidney Crosby has scored the game-winning goal in each of the three wins that Pittsburgh has earned, and that he stood up in front of the dressing room when down in Game Four and demanded more from his troops. He got it. He made promises, along with Malkin and others, about the effort they were going to give in Game Six, and they delivered.
Character isn't a term or intangible that can be quantified, but character and talent can be and we saw that effect tonight. The Penguins' stars decided that they weren't done in the these playoffs and wanted one more home game at least. They talked the talk and then walked the walk. Reporters got a great story out of it, and they filed their pieces knowing that they'll get one more game between the Lightning and Penguins.
This Penguins team, for all its been through this season with their ups and downs, have developed some real character. From the GM's office to the coach's office to the dressing room, this team has been spun through the ringer by the press and bloggers enough to know there are massive expectations on their heads. If the Penguins lose on Thursday, these questions will all be asked once more by reporters who should know they got beaten by a better team on that night.
If they win, however, let's put the questions about character and effort to rest for this season, ok?
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!